Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Falling out of Ivory Towers

This week I decided to throw off the shackles of writing-up my thesis and attend a free training event on the topic of 'Engaging with Non-academic Audiences' which was held at the University of York, organised by the White Rose University Consortium. Not put off by the snow, I made my way to York to attend a series of workshops about what 'impact' really is (bad terminology apparently, but more on that later) and what the practicalities of public engagement are.

The talks were generally useful, good natured and informative. The first workshop was a sort of primer for why we should be engaging with wider audiences and what the research 'impact agenda'. It quickly became apparent that 'impact' isn't a word that many people feel comfortable with - some feel that it implies that the academic is presuming their own importance or that it implies that all research has to make a big splash. Impact has thus become 'engaged research' or even, for those of you who like long words 'democratising knowledge'. I suppose the idea that came across was, simply, to share your research and have meaningful fun doing it.

The second workshop focussed on the practicalities of engaging with non-academic audiences, presenting lots of questions about how to engage those audiences, how to approach partner institutions (museums, galleries, community groups and so on) and how to secure funding for research undertakings. There was a lot of discussion, but I'm not sure how much practical information it really provided - a couple of case studies aside, I am no wiser on how to go about securing funding, other than turning up on the doorstep of your desired partner in research with a smile and bags of enthusiasm (maybe that is the only way). Slight misnomer aside, the session was still useful and again provided an opportunity to reiterate that there should be no Ivory Towers in academia.

An excellent demonstration of that was the key note speaker for the day - Professor Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Professor Hobbs gave a Powerpoint free talk (and stressed the importance of being able to talk without it!) full of anecdotes about discussing Socrates in marketplaces and the difficulties of sounding good on the radio. She was keen to emphasise how non-academic audiences aren't stupid and should never be thought of as such - most people can understand complicated subjects, if they're explained well. Definitely something to keep in mind, I thought, as I made my way home.

Given the kind of  day I'd just taken part in, I was subsequently a bit surprised to overhear some other attendees on the train home talk derisively about the same kinds of community group we'd just been talking about engaging and critically... would potentially be asking for money. I heard them chatter about how cringe-worthy some local historic interest and re-enactment groups are - a kind of 'wouldn't be caught dead doing that' attitude. From my few seats back on the train I realised that this was why academics are still thought of as elitist and as tucked away in their far off academic towers, because at least some of them are.  

You may not like the idea of running around at the weekend, eating 'historically inspired' food, watching people talk about the use of medieval weaponry - but you know what? Lots of people do. Lots of normal people, ordinary people, do.  Have you been to an English Heritage open day, with its living history and treasure hunts, or an interactive Science Museum with lots of hands-on demonstrations? They're full of people, families and 20-something year olds enjoying things they are enabled to understand and enjoy. A public lecture has its place, but simple old-fashioned knowledge transfer is not the route of learning or enjoyment for all the people. The sooner we realise that and the sooner we stop being embarrassed by the idea of applying your research in a people friendly way, the better.

It's not about dumbing down, it's about explaining it well and making people feel the joy you feel about a subject using a different route, for people who haven't spent 10 years reading the same books. You can innovate, change opinions, make people think of things in different ways. As a knowledgeable person with all that book learnin', you have the power and ability to do that.

It's hard to do, but if I learnt anything from the tales told at the event, it's worth doing.

Out of the tower, into the open. It's magic.


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